26 September 2010

Why I love grasses for fall colour

It's been a few years since my fascination with ornamental grasses began. I started out slowly, with a couple of Miscanthus varieties, then a Hakonechloa, then a Calamagrostis. It takes grasses at least three years to develop some size, and the warm-season grasses seem slow to establish and late to bloom here in my garden. But they are so worth it. The foliage, the flowerheads, the way the light glistens on leaf blades and flowers, the song of the grasses as the wind wafts through them...they're just all around delightful.

There are a few caveats when purchasing grasses.
You need to make sure to select the right grass for your conditions, as some are very drought tolerant but hate soggy soil, while others need regular moisture.
Most are happiest with full sun, but some are shade tolerant.
Some bloom early in summer, like the feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis), while others, such as the panic grasses (Panicum) and silver maiden grasses (Miscanthus) are later blooming.
Make sure to select varieties that are clump or sod-formers, rather than rowdies that spread by runners. There are a few grasses that can be thuggish, such as gardener's garters or variegated ribbon grass (Phalaris). In some areas, Japanese blood grass is invasive, but here in NS it tends to be quite well behaved, being marginally hardy.
And most importantly, watch out for zone hardiness. There are a few fountain grasses (Pennisetum) which are hardy here in Nova Scotia: 'Hameln', 'Karley Rose', possibly 'Red Head', but purple fountain grass cultivars (Pennisetum 'Fireworks', above, among others) are hardy only to zone 7 or 8 or warmer. There are a few places that sell those grasses here without telling you that they're not hardy, but a reputable garden centre such as Baldwin's or Ouestville Perennials or Briar Patch or Bunchberry Nurseries won't do that.

The feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis cultivars such as 'Karl Foerster', 'Overdam' and 'Avalanche') bloomed in July, but their tawny golden seedheads are still holding on nicely in my garden. I do find their stems are a little more apt to break down in the wind than are those of other grasses, but I love them anyway.

On Friday, I was in Truro at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, and my friend Carol took me down to the Haley Institute at the farm part of the campus, to show me the grass garden that she and her students planted a few years ago. It's at its best now, with sedums, pussytoes, asters and coneflowers mixed among the cascades and fountains of perennial grasses.

Some people like to do their grasses in display beds of grass only. While I like those, I get impatient earlier in the season when the grasses are just growing and not blooming, so I prefer to incorporate perennials and shrubs with my grasses, as the garden at NSAC is done.

Doesn't this look a lot better than just boring old lawn? Low care, drought tolerant, effective at holding the sloped area in place, and awash with life--birds, bees, other pollinators flitting around the flowers and seedheads.

I love panic grasses, also known as switchgrasses. Their flowerheads are delicate, with tiny individual flowers, and they're subtle--you need to slow down, stop and look at them to appreciate them. Many have gorgeous coloured foliage, some with red or burgundy tips such as 'Shenandoah' or 'Cheyenne Sky'; others are bluer in foliage, such as 'Dallas Blues' and 'Thunderhead'.

Definitely showier in nature, and eyecatchingly fabulous throughout fall and winter, are the miscanthus species and cultivars also known as silvergrasses and maidengrasses. These later blooming varieties stand tall in a garden, and sound like waves of water when the wind rustles them. Some of them have remarkable fall colour, including purple flame grass, M. 'Purpurascens'. Some have wonderful gold striations in their foliage, such as 'Strictus', 'Gold Bar', and 'Little Kitten.'. They're just great plants.

The best way to get to know and appreciate grasses is to look for display gardens featuring them, such as those at many nurseries. This garden is at Bunchberry in Upper Clements, and features a rich selection of grasses, from the low clumps of Carex 'Ice Dance' to the tall, elegant sprays of moor grass, Molinia 'Skyracer'. Many municipalities are using grasses in their public plantings, businesses are embracing them for their landscapes...what are YOU waiting for?

Don't ask me how many grasses I have. I keep bringing them home, even now in late September. And best of all, I've given my sister her first grass. She's on her way to being smitten with them. I hope you are too.

24 September 2010

Skywatch Friday: Autumn Light, autumn harvests

For Skywatch Friday this week, another juxtaposition of sea and sky, sun and land. The boldness of autumn light is officially upon us, and we're going to focus on the crisp, clear days, humidity vanquished, brilliance of sea and sky. This is the lighthouse at Margaretsville, Nova Scotia, further down the shore from us.

See how the dazzling flowers of various Miscanthus cultivars erupt into gleeful colour and light as the sun smiles upon them. It's hard to resist Miscanthus's charms. That would be why I have nearly a dozen cultivars of them.

And of course, autumn means the harvest is in high range for the next few weeks, as tree fruits, cole crops, grains, potatoes, root vegetables and more are harvested. Preserves are being made, veggies are being frozen or dehydrated or canned, and pumpkins are being displayed for the glee of their colour, a celebration of the season. This weekend will see hundreds of people out at upicks around the region, getting apples and squash and pears and tomatoes and many other fruits and veggies; if not picking them themselves, they're purchasing from farmers markets.

The sky promises to be pleasant all weekend. Good harvests, everyone.

22 September 2010

Wordless Wednesday: End of Summer, Start of Autumn...

16 September 2010

Skywatch Friday meets Belated Bloomday

With all the weather scudding around these days, my gaze isn't turned so often skyward as it is to the colourful flourishes in my gardens, so this Skywatch Friday is meeting up with Garden Blogger's Bloom day. I guess I'm one of the lucky ones, because as visitors to my garden have remarked in the past several weeks, "Wow! You have lots of colour happening here!"

Yes, it's true, there's still plenty in bloom here. Part of that is planning on my part, by having selected a variety of perennials that come on later in the season. Part of it is because we normally have slow, cool springs but then we have wonderful late summers and autumns. Things are slower to bloom here, and they last longer, because they're not bludgeoned by too much heat. Mind you, the coming of September normally means the coming of much wind off the water, and this September is being no exception. However, although some things get a bit battered by the winds and rains, there's still a lot of happy colour happening.

It seems there are two predominant colour groups, flower-wise, at this time of year. The first is yellow, varying from the delicate primrose colour on the waxy bells, to the more robust golds of the fall chrysanthemums. Above, clockwise from left: fall mums; waxy bells (Kirengoshoma); a variety of rudbeckias, and echinaceas, along with golden agastache and Efanthia euphorbia; 'Sungold' buddleia; yellow patrinia (Patrinia scabiosifolia); 'Herbstsonne' shining coneflower, with only Miscanthus giganteus reaching higher in the garden. Centre, the gentle yellow of Solidago 'Little Lemon', a fabulous goldenrod if there ever was one!

The other predominant colour of this season is magenta-fuchsia-pink. These are the bright eyecatchers, bee magnets all. Clockwise from top left: Chelone, turtlehead; 'Jenny' aster; the Explorer rose 'Martin Frobisher'; 'Josephine' double clematis; NOID colchicum; One of the heathers (Calluna vulgaris) just finishing its bloom; 'Purple Bush' eupatorium; Tricyrtis 'Samourai'; centre, Vernonia crinita 'Purple Bowl'.

That's not to say these are the only colours in the garden, of course; while the gentians are mostly finished with their cool-blues, there are still eryngium, echinops, and agastache with blue blooms, and there are certainly other colours happening too. Clockwise, left top: 'Pastel Patchwork' wallflower; two double echinaceas, 'Secret Passion' and 'Pink Double Delight'; 'Cloudy' aconitum; 'Coconut Lime' double echinacea; despite already having berries on the female holly, it's flowering some more; a pink potentilla shrub, which I only grow because it was a breast-cancer shrub one year and I planted it in memory of my mother in law Marilyn; one of the tall sedums, 'Frosty Morn', with its cool pink and white flowers; and the pristine, sparkling star of a white Nigella.
Some of my grasses are just coming into their own, and since their foliage is as delightful as their flowerheads, I've combined the two charms to include in one post (for Foliage Followup); Centre, Japanese Bloodgrass; top, Japanese anemone in front of Panicum 'Dallas Blues'; right centre, Pennisetum 'Fireworks' varigated purple fountain grass, NOT perennial here; Miscanthus purpurescens, purple flame grass, bottom right; bottom left, 'Malepartus' miscanthus flowers; centre left, Panicum 'Shenandoah's' foliage glows burgundy. I'll have more to say about grasses in a few days.

Thanks to all who visit, and to those who host these fun memes!

13 September 2010

Always making an aster of myself

The beginning of aster season is always one that finds me with a mixture of delight and dread. The delight, of course, comes from the fact that asters are floriferous, colourful, and present a wonderful flourish of colour when many gardens are starting to wind down.

It goes almost without saying that the dread comes from the fact that they are one of the finales of the main gardening season. They're a valuable part of what Nancy Ondra and Stephanie Cohel refer to as 'Fallscaping', in their wonderful book of the same name: focusing on designing your garden so that autumn is one as rich with colour and texture as spring or summer. While part of me loves the cooler weather and the richness of autumn colours, there IS that part that quails at the thought of winter. But we're focusing on the good things today, and asters are one of the joys of the fall garden palette.

One of their charms for me is how their colours are quite different from many shades of September. At a time when foliage on shrubs, hardwood trees and some perennials, along with many of the flowers still blooming in this month, are alight with bronze, copper, gold, crimson, orange and red, asters erupt with sometimes cooler, sometimes even hotter shades. This purple New England aster in my friend Jerry's garden is a perfect contrast to the brighter yellows and golds echoed by its central florets.

I like white asters for their cooling appearance, and in the case of the calico asters (A. lateriflorus), the tiny flowers that festoon lateral branches of these plants can almost completely cover the plants. Despite the tiny flowers, the calico asters are one of my favourites, reminding me of pagoda dogwoods or the plicatum tomentosum viburnums such as 'Mariesii' and 'Summer Snowflake', with their layered, lateral-branching effects.

Asters don't all bloom at the same time. There are petite, earlier-flowering forms, often alpine, which gladden the gardeners heart during summer, and the distant cousins that are annual 'asters' (Callistephus). I don't grow the annuals, but do have a wide variety of perennial asters, some of which are just as delightful while in bud as in full bloom.

'Woods Pink' is a dumosus aster, one of the lower-growing, even ground-covering, forms. It's wellnamed, being a powderpuff-pink shade, and a nice addition to borders.

A word about genus nomenclature. In recent years, DNA typing and further study has led taxonomists to move some former members of genus aster to other genera, including Symphytotrichum, Eurybia and Eucephalus. It's always so encouraging to gardeners to have an easy-to-pronounce name switched to something more cumbersome, isn't it? (Or not...) However, for simplicity's sake I am going to refer to all of these as asters, and you'll find plenty of websites and books that do the same, offering the newer name as synonym. No one will scold you, unless it's some taxonomist with nothing better to do.

I used to have a perennial problem with asters, in that I would buy a couple and plant them out, then forget where they were, and inadvertently weed them out in the spring. I would also invariably leave several wild asters, of which there are at least a dozen species in Nova Scotia, (plus the infinite interspecies hybrids that form from these promiscuous plants), to come into bloom instead. Now, I simply leave them all to grow, and whether they are cultivated types like this tall, NOID New England aster...
...or wild varieties like this white wood aster (which now is classified in the genus Eurybia rather than Aster, but it's close enough), they are all welcome to put on a show in my borders. Asters are great pollinator plants, often covered in bees, bee-mimics, and butterflies during warm latesummer and autumn days.

One of the newly added, lower-growing named asters in my garden is 'Anneke', a dumosus variety. You can make these as well as the taller varieties bushier and even more floriferous, though a bit later-flowering, by cutting them back in June or early July to about half their height. They will then be less prone to blowing over in the rains and gales of September, and produce even more stems of brilliant blossoms.

One of my favourites is 'Jenny', which is planted under a 'Snow Pavement' rose, and the hot pink of the aster is cooled and charmed by the pale lavender of the rose. Again, the buds just opening are as delightful (in my mind) as are the fully-flushed blossoms that will be here in a couple of days.

In my front border, a Michaelmas or New York aster named 'Dragon' (A. nova-belgii 'Dragon') is producing a vivid display of bright purple-blue flowers. It's new this year, and I've marked it because I want to move it a little more mid-border; this year it's only about a foot tall, but I've found in subsequent years the Michaelmas daisies can get fairly tall, especially if I happen to forget to prune them in late spring or early summer.

A. nova-belgii 'Puff' is another of my favourites with its pure white flowers that resemble miniature shasta daisies. I first located this plant at the garden centre at Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where it charmed me on sight. It has continued to be a delightful addition to my garden for several years, although 'Winston Churchill', a deep pink-wine variety I bought at the same time, shuffled off its mortal coil (or was possibly victim of my pre-laissez-faire aster weeding of years gone by).

My absolute favourite New England Aster, 'Alma Potschke' is not yet in bloom because of where it's planted in less than full sun (and I keep forgetting to move it until it's too large), so we wrap up this little ode to asters with an almost-as-brilliant variety, the delightful 'September Ruby'. I forgot to prune this one this past June, and it gets somewhat rumpled by catching the west wind in my back garden, but its hot-magenta flowers create a blaze of colour that never fails to cause a smile on my face.

10 September 2010

Skywatch Friday: Stormy Waters, Sunflower Skies

I am almost fashionably late with my Skywatch Friday post, but since I popped up for air from working and started reading other blogs, I realized what day it was!

As you know from other posts, including my previous one, Hurricane Earl was pretty much a non-event in my part of the world. We did get some rain, and some wind, and it did make for a few good waves on both the Atlantic and Fundy coasts of Nova Scotia. This is a scene at Halls Harbour, a few miles down the coast from me.
As a nice juxtaposition from that bombastic weather, some blissfully smiling sunflowers that I saw today while visiting a local home for special care. The people who own that facility have huge gardens all around the grounds, and they are well cared for and interesting--and much appreciated by both the residents and those who visit loved ones there. A sunflower to me is always a cause for smiling, and these basking under blue skies made me that much happier.

08 September 2010

Post Earl Beauty: All is well

As Saturday afternoon gave way to evening, I paraphrased an old expression from the 1970s "What if they gave a hurricane and nobody came?" Earl was pretty much a non-event for us; some wind, some rain, happily no damage to crops or properties around here. A few trees uprooted or broken in other areas, some power outages, but really, it could have been much worse. Thank you all for your good wishes and caring; I hope everyone got off as unscathed as we did.

Ironically, we had more wind on Sunday and Monday, of a more damaging kind because it came out of the west southwest, than during Earl's visit. I was pretty cranky when I walked around the garden on Monday and saw some of the perennials had been beaten around by the wind, by banging into other plants, but I soon got over it when I noticed some of the marvels that were happening.

Starting with the blooming of 'Sungold' buddleia, one of the most beautiful of flowering shrubs. Here in Nova Scotia, buddleias are not only NOT invasive, they are often marginally hardy. They will die down to the ground and come back fresh for some, but I tend to treat them as annuals, buying small plants each spring and tucking them into spots where they will hopefully be happy. Obviously, this one has been happy.

While I don't have drifts and drifts of Verbena bonariensis, I have half a dozen good plants from transplants this year, and I'm optimistic that we might get seedlings. If not, I'm sure a visit to my friend Terri next spring will yield some new seedlings. This is such a great plant, beloved of butterflies and other pollinators as well as by the gardener.

'Lemon Princess' spirea has decided to throw up a number of new blossoms along with some freshly gold foliage. I normally don't even pay much attention to the flowers on most of my spireas, as I chose them for their foliage colours rather than their blooms.

After years of battling with Russian sage, I decided to simply treat it as an annual, and buy it every year. I've placed it in the best-drained garden, where the echinaceas live, and if it survives the winter and comes back next year, great. If not, I still like it and will plant it again next season.

One of my favourite roses is the rugosa hybrid 'Polareis', which I bought at Cornhill Nursery about seven years ago and which is a spectacularly floriferous and well behaved shrub. It does get some aphids on its buds, but I just spray a blast of water from the hose on them or let their predators feast on them.

This is the season when perennial grasses are really coming into their own. Some of them have finished flowering, but others, such as the miscanthuses, panicums, molinias and schizachyriums are just coming on.

I have half a dozen or more miscanthus varieties around the property, not all of them clearly identified. Since this one came from Baldwin's Nurseries and is the earliest to flower, I'm fairly sure that it's 'Malepartus'. It was unperturbed by the wind, whoever it is.

While I am kicking and screaming about going into rapidly shorter days, I do like the light of September, especially when it plays on foliage such as in this garden. This is a garden in Wolfville that I discovered today; along with numerous low growing shrubs such as barberries, there are Japanese blood grasses (Imperata) and fountain grasses (Pennisetum) catching the light.

Although some of the echinaceas were battered and petal-bruised by the weekend weather, 'Secret Passion' decided to comfort me by producing several new blooms. It's not quite as awesome as 'Hot Papaya', but it's pretty close.

To go along with my lovely yellow buddleia, here's another late-blooming shrub: Caryopteris, or blue mist shrub, sometimes also called blue spirea. This is a small plant, bought this summer from a nursery that had brought it in thinking it was somehow a perennial (I think the nursery they ordered from screwed up their order). I love caryopteris, though it can be really slow to bloom here; its cooling blue flowers work beautifully among the hotter colours of many of September's blooms.

03 September 2010

Skywatch Friday: The calm before Earl...

Thursday morning I went outside just after sunrise, when the sky was simply heat-haze coloured as opposed to blue, to take a walk around the gardens and record what they look like while we wait to see if Hurricane Earl comes a-calling. It seemed like a good idea to have a look at the mass of bloom still happening in my garden, when things are relatively tidy and floriferous and there wasn't a breath of wind to disturb the scene. So although it's not really sky-oriented, this is my offering for this week's Skywatch Friday.

A variety of hydrangeas provide a backdrop for this wash of perennials, evergreen and deciduous shrubs. I refer to this as my mini-prairie-in-progress, with panic grass, rudbeckias, and other coneflowers consorting with bee-enticing plants such as agastaches and eryngiums. The bees were extremely busy this morning, loving the heat, and perhaps knowing that there is inclement weather coming. They bustle around the garden, diving into flowers and essentially ignoring me. I listen to them and smile a lot.

My coneflowers are still going very strong in their bed. I mentioned on Facebook that Longsuffering Spouse kindly edged around this bed on the weekend, cutting out a good foot of sod and then adding well-composted manure to the bare ground. In a few weeks time, it'll be perfectly suited for tucking in some springflowering bulbs, and next spring I'll spread the perennials out, moving some of the coneflowers forward and letting the taller ones work as a backdrop.

The outburst of gold in the centre foreground is Solidago 'Little Lemon', a cultivated goldenrod sent to me last year by Dugald Cameron of GardenImport. It's thriving beautifully, and is becoming one of my favourite later-season flowers. I plan to divide the plant and move it to another bed where it can spread out and consort with eupatorium and other later-season stars.

Signs of the closing down of summer: some of the miscanthus are beginning to put up their tall, wispily elegant flower heads over their fountaining foliage, while Actaea 'Pink Spike' is in full bloom. Tanacetum 'Isla Gold' is blooming enthusiastically, although I plant it more for its gold foliage, which is starting to fade to a bright lime green now, and Monarda 'Raspberry Wine' is still providing lots of food for the lingering hummingbirds. It'll be interesting to see if they stay beyond tomorrow or if they take off on their migration before the arrival of Earl.

We're not terribly concerned about Earl, whether he arrives as a hurricane or a tropical storm. Living in a rural community on the shores of the Bay of Fundy means that we expect bombastic weather from time to time, and we are generally prepared for it. Those of you who are regular readers know that we get truly rude winter storms, and usually at least one tropical storm or diminishing hurricane as summer winds down. So things may be messy on Saturday, and there may be some flattened flowers and defoliated shrubs come Sunday, but I'd sooner that we took the brunt of it than the apple and pear producers down in the Valley below us. It could be a difficult weekend for them.

02 September 2010

Virtual Book Tour: Hothouse Flower & the Nine Plants of Desire

A few weeks back, I was contacted by a publicist who wondered if I was interested in participating in what is called a Virtual Book Tour, in which a number of us would read and review a particular novel. Based on the blurb about the novel, I agreed to do so, and read Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire.

In my real life as a freelance journalist, I write for a variety of publications and clients, and about a number of different subjects. Despite the fact that it’s time-consuming and doesn’t pay well, I regularly review books for the provincial newspaper, occasionally for other publications, and occasionally put up a review here on bloomingwriter. Normally, I review books of nonfiction in my areas of interest: gardening, nature, science/environment, occasionally history; occasionally I review a work of fiction. I have interviewed numerous authors, including Canadian icons Margaret Atwood and David Adams Richards, (two of my favourite authors) and have long taken my philosophy of book reviewing from something Ms. Atwood wrote some years ago.

“I still won’t review a book I don’t like, although to do so would doubtless be amusing for the Ms. Hyde side of me and entertaining for the more malicious class of reader,” Ms. Atwood wrote in the introduction to her essay collection, Moving Targets: Writing with Intent, 1982-2004. She goes on to say that if a book is really bad, it ought not be reviewed at all, or if it’s good but not to her taste, someone else should review it.

This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not a particularly good one. I will stress that it’s mostly not to my taste, which runs the gamut from science fiction to thrillers to hardcore literature, so maybe I'm just being a grump. However though not entranced by it, I see some flashes of delightful ability in the author, enough that I will be quite willing to read a future work by Berwin even though I won’t re-read this particular one.

If you’ve been following the virtual book tour set up for Hothouse Flower, you may have already read the book, or at least know its premise: Lila, the narrator/lead character is newly divorced, lives in New York City, works a sort of dull job in an ad agency, has a bright but dull apartment. She has no commitments—no relationship, no pets, no plants, no real life outside of her McJob—until she buys a tropical plant from a smooth-talking street vendor. She then meets an odd but somewhat intriguing man who has a Laundromat filled with exotic and wonderful plants, and through her own errors in judgment, she causes this man to lose his plants. Her ensuing quest to replace his plant collection leads her to the rainforests of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

The premise is intriguing, and the book blurb sounded promising. And while Berwin writes quite well at times and has a quirkily fun sense of humour, her characters simply don’t work for me. My amusement at some of the dialogue, events and descriptions in the book was completely overshadowed by the characters, none of whom make me care about them even a little bit, and several of whom are reprehensible for no apparent reason related to the storyline. When the little bits profiling each of the plants at the beginning of chapters are the most entertaining parts of the novel, there’s a problem with the work.

At times, there’s a bit of a magic realism feel to events in Hothouse Flower. But unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez with his One Hundred Years of Solitude or Jack Hodgins’ brilliant romp The Invention of the World, there’s not enough mystery between the covers of Berwin’s novel to make me really wonder about the odd things that do take place here and there. Rather than be fetchingly mysterious and ineffable, they come across as jarringly annoying and contrived, as if the author was trying overly hard to be clever.

Normally, when reviewing a book I avoid any reviews done by others, lest my opinion be in some way coloured by the comments of more learned heads than mine. Because I was completely unfamiliar with Berwin prior to reading Hothouse Flower, I did seek out more information about her. She has said that while this is her first published novel, it’s her third work, and does draw on some aspects of her own experience. Although it spans mere months as opposed to years, Hothouse Flower could be considered a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel of self-development, by an author still fledging her wings. With this in mind, I do genuinely look forward to reading future work by Berwin when she has had a few more years of honing her skills.

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